Two years ago, I was invited to go to Canada as a member of the official Presidential Delegation to the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games. I was thrilled to once again represent my country in a Paralympic milieu, albeit from the cushy sidelines of the VIP seats. To serve side by side with distinguished fellow Paralympians Jim Martinson, Mike May and Melissa Stockwell, not to mention a Special Assistant to the President, two Cabinet members, and the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, was one of the most exciting honors I have ever experienced.
The moment our plane landed in Vancouver, I tried to conjure images from the Innsbruck Games, where I competed in 1984. But nothing came. Not the long, transatlantic plane ride, nor the airport, nor the majestic Alpine scenery. There were some hazy recollections of schlepping all my gear around narrow icy streets, sharing a tiny room in a B&B with two teammates, getting nothing but hard rolls and salami for breakfast and waiting in the freezing cold for my turn to hit the gates. But all I could clearly remember was my laser-like focus on the job at hand, the terror of potential failure and the dizzying prospect of taking home a medal—or three.
As our motorcade (yes, we had a motorcade—with Mounties!) led us to the gigantic BC Place arena for the opening ceremonies, I was overwhelmed with how completely the Paralympic experience had changed in the last 26 years. Back in 1984, we got a plane ticket, a jacket and a bib with a number on it. I remember skiing with mismatched gloves I got out of the lost and found because I didn’t have the money to buy new ones. Friends and family attended the events only if they could get there on their own, and there was virtually no media coverage. If you wanted a souvenir, you had to place first, second or third, and wear it home around your neck.
Now, 60,000 people gathered into this enormous arena to cheer the crutches and wheelchairs of the finest athletes with disabilities in the world. Everywhere we turned, we were imbued with all the color and pageantry of Olympic competition. The athletes were ferried around as celebrities—in full Paralympic regalia paid for by the same sponsors footing the bill for “normie” athletes. They were housed in the same gorgeous, comfortable village with trainers and full service gyms. The special events and media coverage were top flight. They even had a mascot! This was a world-class event in every sense.
I felt a personal sense of pride because, in some small part, the hard work and long years of training we all did way-back-when has helped to pave the way for the recognition of people with disabilities as world-class athletes today. Back when we didn’t get the coverage, the funding or the access to the Olympic training centers, I worked in a gift shop on Mt. Hood, so I could pay my own way into the most elite able-bodied summer ski training camp in the country. I convinced Burke Mountain Academy to give me a full scholarship to train in Vermont as their first full-time disabled athlete. I skied in 10 below weather, suffered a broken leg, stitches in my lip and spent most Christmas and New Year’s holidays away from home. I raised funds, courted sponsors and worked odd jobs from Colorado to Lake Tahoe to make it all work. I thought about how many hundreds of us athletes back then used all kinds of guerilla tactics to overcome the tremendous odds and carve out opportunities to show everyone what a disabled athlete could do.
Now, the whole world was witnessing what we in the Paralympic world had known since the beginning: athletic competition among people with disabilities is intense and exciting. From the careful precision of Wheelchair Curling, to the slam-bang action of Ice Sledge Hockey, my senses were overwhelmed with joy and awe. I saw fellow amputees whiz by at staggering speeds, grueling prosthetic punishment on the cross-country courses, even an armless biathlete, who shot the gun with his teeth.
So, as we head to London for the Paralympic Summer games this year, I know that these athletes have access to greater resources than we did for training, travel, coaching and more; I know that they have broken our old records and, once again, redefined what is possible for the human body. And while I feel a tinge of envy wondering what it would be like to compete in today’s environment, I feel proud of the small part we earlier competitors played in helping to make it possible. I can only hope that these athletes, too, will someday sit where I am and watch a new crop of Paralympians running faster, flying higher and performing stronger than any before them.
Congratulations to all the Paralympians who have earned a place in the London Olympics this summer. Not only are you making your own mark on history, you are part of a growing movement that continues to inspire us all with the possibilities of beauty, speed and greatness…no matter what the challenge.
Bonnie St. John is a Paralympic medalist, Rhodes Scholar and best-selling author, whose latest text is How Great Women Lead: A Mother-Daughter Adventure into the Lives of Women Shaping the World. For a look at the backstory on other amazing Paralympic athletes, check out Medal Quest.